Elhanan Miller, Thana Jawabreh
Originally published in YNetNews
Elhanan Miller is a kippa-wearing Orthodox Jew and Thana Jawabreh is a devout Muslim who covers her head; together, they created a project to educate members of each other’s faith and break down barriers.
The concept of inner faith exists in Judaism as well as Islam, but the concept is understood differently in the two religions. Elhanan Miller, an Orthodox Jew, and Thana Jawabreh, an Arab Muslim, created the “close neighbor” project, a series of videos uploaded to the People of the Book YouTube channel, intended to create an interdenominational and cultural bridge between Jews and Muslims in Israel.
Here, the two discuss their faith, its interpretations and what it means to them as people.
“I like to say that I am religious,” Jawabreh says. “There are people who are just Muslims, without any commitment. They were born Muslim but are essentially secular.”
“Both religions are focused on faith, and then there are the ritual commandments required to lead a religious life,” says Miller. “I wonder if the two can be separated. You (Muslims) also have words like ‘religious,’ ‘committed,’ and believer.’ Can one be religious without believing in the whole narrative?”
Jawabreh: “I define myself as religious and there are some people who are mere Muslims. We have no equivalent in Islam to someone who is religious but does not believe in the whole religious narrative. A religious person believes in the entire narrative. They may have some reservations but not on the principles.
“Most people I meet among my crowd are more traditional and less religious. Some will not allow their daughters to be out later than seven or eight o’clock at night and are deliberate in their dress, but they won’t call themselves religious but rather traditional.”
Miller: “In Judaism, there are many devoutly religious people who accept without question every word of Jewish scripture. But those who study at university and engage in research know that there are frequently gaps between what science tells us about our history and the narrative conveyed by the Torah and Jewish texts. It can cause an identity crisis for religious people.”
Miller says that he handles the issue by not concentrating on the big, cosmic issues. He prefers to not focus on the essence of God and the question of divine justice:
“In the 20th century, with all the wars and disasters that have taken place for us and the Muslims, it is very difficult to talk about a God who is just, at least in the way we understand such concepts of ‘good’ and ‘justice.’ It’s much more complex than that. I am more attached to the concept of “observant,” because as far as I am concerned, my connection to Judaism is expressed in practice and in this system of laws which I call Judaism.
“There is a widespread phenomenon of people abandoning their religious faith, ex-religious, who remove their head covering,” Miller continues. “There is hardly a religious family that does not have at least one child who went through such a phase. It is a phenomenon that is swept under the rug, there is an aspect of shame involved, but it is widespread. Is there something similar among Muslims?”
Jawabreh: “The issue has not been investigated thoroughly. Recently, there have been quite a few women who have chosen to remove their head covering… Go to Baka (al-Gharbiyeh) and see how the mother wears devout Muslim garb and her daughter is wearing jeans and a short-sleeved shirt with her hair down. Something about her mother’s religiosity was not conveyed to her.
“I think there was a religious renaissance in the 80s, but it didn’t last. If those women understood the religion something would have been passed on. But apparently there exists a mental block regarding the religious fundamentals. Universal ethics draw inspiration from our religions — Islam, Christianity and Judaism,” she says.
Miller: “I believe that there is a problem with role models in religion. Children and young people lack role models and often, leaving religion stems from a feeling that adults are hypocritical. People avoid talking about their difficulties with religion and faith and it creates alienation among the youth. What we are trying to do with this project is discuss the personal experience in our religion in order to attract the young.”
Jawabreh: “I think there is a problem of the inability to accept criticism within our religious community. If I have a problem with one verse in the Quran, leaving religion is still a far cry. But religious institutions have trouble accepting this; they should be examining the interpretation of the text and see if it remains appropriate.
“I always claimed that there is male domination of religion. For example, it is written in the Quran that a woman inherits half compared to the man, but in Arab society in Palestine and in other places women do not inherit at all. It is demeaning to have to ask for our rights from our parents who bequest their inheritance to the brothers. The clerics will not talk about it because it does not affect them,” she adds.
Since her childhood in the northern town of Fureidis, Jawabreh has been careful to perform the five daily prayers required by Muslims. Similar to Orthodox Jewish feminists, she watched how her mother – a female cleric – made progress on the issue of Muslim women in the mosques.
“My mother always believed that women must see the imam (Muslim leader) during prayers otherwise the prayer is less valid. She always said that a mosque should not be two stories high so that if one sees that the imam made a mistake, they can notify him. For example, the bow which is essential to the prayer ceremony (must be performed correctly) and a woman must know this.
“So, my mother opened the first women’s mosque in our town and she leads the prayers for the women. She stands in front and the others are in rows behind her,” she said.
Adherents of Islam are required to perform five prayers daily. The morning prayer is called Fajr and is performed shortly before sunrise. The second, Zuhr, is performed just after midday; the third prayer, Asr, is performed in the afternoon; the fourth, Maghrib, after sunset and the final prayer, Isha, is performed at night.
Devotees of both Judaism and Islam both face difficulties waking up for morning prayers and if you thought that the Muezzin (who recites the call to prayer over loudspeakers) is the solution, “the Muezzin simply does not do his job, “she says. “I understand that his calls may not be so pleasant for Muslim ears but he does not wake us.”
Some Muslims combine two prayers that are performed adjacent to one another, similar to how some Jews perform the Mincha service just before sundown and then pray the evening Ma’ariv evening service, all in one synagogue visit.
“Our prayers are different than yours because it is not merely the recitation of texts but rather it is about a dialogue with God,” Jawabreh says. “(In Judaism) part of our prayers consist of supplications,” interjects Miller, “but the prayers are not always personal, they are phrased generically.”
In Islam it’s a bit different. “There are texts that allow for improvisation, you can say whatever is on your heart. We also have supplications which involve submission to God and talking to him through your heart,” she says.
“How do Muslims decide which Quranic verses to recite?” asks Miller.
Jawabreh: “The Quran consists of 114 chapters and the final chapter has a number of short verses. Many Muslims, myself among them, find it easy to remember those verses and recite them during prayers. The more pious Muslims recite longer verses in their prayers.”
“There exists some tension between spontaneous prayer and prayers that are set in established prepared texts,” says Miller. “Oftentimes we find ourselves automatically reciting our prayers mindlessly, with rote repetition, and our head is in another place. How do you make yourself focus?
Jawabreh nods in agreement. “It’s the same by us and I believe that we are not praying correctly… Prayer should be combined with meditation, which I recently began doing and I fell that it strengthens my connection with God. During prayers, I think about life, about the children and work… I want to further work on combining prayer and meditation.”
Miller makes an effort to pray with a minyan (quorum of 10 men), at least on Fridays and Saturdays, similar to how Muslims gather at the mosque on Friday. Jawabreh explains that in Islam, praying together has a special potency. “They say that Satan cannot enter a group of people, therefore it is advised that men, not necessarily women, pray together in a mosque and not at home.
“Our women don’t need to go to the mosque for prayers; it is incumbent on men. We women pray at home but we can pray together at home,” she adds. “I recall my mother would lead the prayers and we would stand behind her. On Friday’s women go to the mosque to pray on the second floor, but the (male) sheikh leads the prayers.”
Elhanan Miller is a journalist, researcher and student of Jewish law at the Harel Academy in Jerusalem.
Thana Jawabreh is a social activist, feminist and coordinator of the Unit for the Advancement of Arab Students at Shenkar College.